Replacing Slaven Bilić as Croatia coach following his departure for FC Lokomotiv Moskva was never going to be easy. The 43-year-old had made Croatia regular top-ten performers in the world rankings after taking charge in 2006, and signed off with a brave showing at UEFA EURO 2012 where they stood tall against world giants like Spain and Italy.
The challenge for Bilić's replacement, his former international defensive team-mate Igor Štimac, is to maintain that level of performance. "I am convinced I will continue this level of success," the 44-year-old said upon his appointment. "Moreover, I will raise the quality of play. I am happy to have this opportunity to prove myself to those people who are sceptical about my abilities and don't believe in me."
However, those critics received early ammunition to use against the new coach when his side lost 4-2 in Split against Switzerland in his opening friendly fixture. "I apologise to our fans and I promise we will return to Split to make amends," said the former HNK Hajduk Split player and coach after what was the worst managerial debut for any Croatia boss.
If the supporters were not too concerned, knowing it was just a friendly, Štimac will want to see much more as his team kick off their FIFA World Cup qualifying Group A campaign. They begin at home to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on Friday, with a more arduous visit to Belgium to follow next Tuesday. The pressure is on, yet the 53-times capped international is certain he has nothing to fear.
"I have never been afraid of anything – I don't see why I should be afraid of one match," said Štimac, who played in Spain and England, as well as enjoying a brief pop career. "I am here to share my knowledge and experience with the players and to help them deal with whatever this match brings. I never underestimated any of my opponents, so will not do so with FYROM.
"However, a good start is very important for us because it will create a good atmosphere
. The start is especially important in Croatia because as a nation our mood can veer from euphoria to cataclysm in one second. Now we are looking to go to Belgium in a positive spirit. We will play against Macedonia like it is a World Cup final."
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